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Supremes hear atheists' demand to remove WWI memorial

The World War I memorial known as Bladensburg’s Cross in Bladensburg, Maryland, is under attack from atheists and Muslims.

An atheist organizations argued before the Supreme Court on Wednesday that a World War I memorial in Bladensburg, Maryland, must be destroyed because it’s in the shape of a cross.

Analyst Amy Howe wrote at Scotusblog that the 40-foot-tall stone and concrete cross has been in a traffic median for nearly a century.

Seven years ago, the American Humanist Association
filed a lawsuit claiming the memorial, on property later acquired by the government, favors one religion over others.

“It seemed likely that the cross will survive the challenge, even if the court’s ruling proves to be a relatively narrow one that allows the peace cross and other historical monuments to stand while making clear that new religious symbols may not pass muster in the future,” the blog said.

The memorial features the names of the 49 soldiers from the area killed in World War I.

Originally a federal judge ruled for the state, but the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled the cross dominates nearby memorials and thus endorses a religion.

Scotusblog explained lawyers for the state, in defense of the monument, argued it has been there for nearly a century without challenge. They also pointed out there is a long tradition of using the cross shape for memorials and the particular monument is closely associated with World War I.

Three liberal judges made points indicating their opposition to the cross.

Sonia Sotomayor, Scotusblog said, “was incredulous at the idea that there was a long tradition of crosses in public places.” Elena Kagan challenged the idea that a cross can have a secular meaning, and Ruth Ginsburg questioned the claim that a cross is a universal symbol for soldiers from World War I. She said a Star of David emblem marks the graves of Jewish soldiers.

“Monica Miller argued on behalf of the American Humanist Association and the local residents challenging the cross,” Scotusblog said. “After Miller responded to a hypothetical from Justice Samuel Alito about whether a town could put up a Star of David as a memorial to the victims of a shooting at a synagogue by answering that a ’45-foot Star of David in the middle of a roadway would be a problem,’ Gorsuch broached a question about whether Miller’s clients should have a legal right to challenge the cross at all. There aren’t many areas of the law, Gorsuch told Miller, where people can sue over an offense because it is ‘too loud.'”

A key question is what would happen to other religious symbols if the justices rule against the cross.

What about Native American totem poles or a cross in Gettysburg dating to 1888?

“Miller tried to assure the justices that her opponents were exaggerating the number of crosses on public land, telling them that it was ‘more like 10 or maybe 20.’ But that response didn’t seem to allay the justices’ concerns.”

The 40-foot “Peace Cross,” made of granite and cement, was built in 1925 at Maryland Route 450 and U.S. Route 1 in Bladensburg, Maryland, and was funded by local families, businesses and the American Legion.

However, the state later acquired the property and has been paying for maintenance.

The shape was selected for its likeness to cross-shaped grave markers used for soldiers buried in American cemeteries overseas at the time.